Monday, 29 May 2017

Performance Advice is No Use To Regular People

I read an excellent book about sleeping recently. Turns out that if you want a really good night's sleep, made round your body rhythms, you should sleep on your own. You can canoodle all you like before dozing off, but when it comes to sleep, the performance-minded sleeper sleeps alone. People whose partners snore will doubtless agree.

An end to this nonsense, I say. I have said before that physical sobriety is only for drunks and emotional sobriety is only for emotional fuck-ups. Both of which are me. In the same way, dieting is for people who can't stop eating the wrong food and putting on weight; exercise is for people who will otherwise spend all day on the couch; and managed sleep is for insomniacs. There are all sorts of people who benefit from exercise, managed sleeping and eating, a consistent programme of cultural and intellectual self-improvement, but all of them are either athletes, creative workers, or dysfunctionals. And the comorbidity between "dysfunctional" and "athlete or creative worker" is much higher than advertised.

Ordinary people - and if you bristled slightly at that phrase, you are one - should not adopt ideas intended for athletes, drunks, and violin students entering the BBC Young Musician competition. Ordinary people should not aim for consistent exercise, diets and exercise regimes, career development and self-management. Nor should they aim for a meaning, purpose, goal or story for their lives. They should not aim for balance, calm, and proportion in their emotions. Those things are for neurotic, driven, obsessed, unstable people who need to manage themselves, either because they will fly apart or because they are aiming for a distant target.

Ordinary people who can afford to eat just a little too much should be overweight; ordinary people should have no understanding of science and engineering, and even less of economics and the human soul. They should have as much knowledge and skill as it takes to do their job, and no more, certainly not enough to make it more difficult for the next person. They should not choke up at the end of Mahler's Second, the music of J S Bach should sound like busy fiddling, and their first and last reaction to a Basquiat should be that their children paint like that. Rohmer movies should feel like paint drying, and sushi should be cold rice and fish. Ordinary people should get hangovers, eat curry on a Saturday night, cereal for breakfast, and have chips with their rice. They should watch sports rather than take part; lie on the beach rather than climb mountains; and go to theme parks rather than art galleries. They should have arguments, rows, affairs, messy divorces, illegitimate children, complicated families, and unemployed older children.


Because the managed life of the athlete, top ten percent knowledge worker, or professional, is unimaginably bland. It starts with an education requiring years of deferred gratification, punctuated by moments of binging sensuality. It carries on through more years of deferred gratification, constructive habit-building, and the deliberate management of the self. In order to achieve at that level, such people do not think about winning or losing, nor savour the taste of victory nor feel the sting of defeat. That applies to lawyers, negotiators, and mathematicians as well as athletes. The last scientists to experience a hit of exhilaration at their discovery were likely Crick and Watson.

At the top levels, the concern is with analysis, method, practice, rehearsal, fine-tuning, acquiring one more useful technique. Amateurs train to prepare for the competition, professionals compete to identify training needs. For professionals, winning is not about better or best, but about money. The motive for participation for the top-end performer is not the rewards of success, but the participation in the process. Doing, not achieving, is the goal: the achievements come as a by-product. As does whatever sponsorship and award money is available. Sounds like fun? It doesn’t even sound like work. It sounds like some weird third mode of being that cuts one off from the very things that ordinary people think are the rewards of such efforts.

State control, otherwise known as emotional management, is essential. An ordinary person feels an emotion and lives it. That emotion may pass or linger, it may become a trace element in their base emotional state. They may fight the emotion to deny its existence, or, perhaps with that immortal phrase "I can't believe...", deny that they are responsible for managing the effects of the emotion. A high-performer treats emotions like weather: emotions are things that happen to them like winds, showers or hot weather. Feel it, acknowledge it, take action and move on. When it rains, find shelter. If someone steals their car, they call the insurance company. If their children are hurt, well, then play injured, like everyone else does.

The constant self-management required, much greater now than it was even fifty years ago, is easier, if not even only possible in the first place, if one simply never does anything remotely at variance from mainstream or regulatory expectations, and so if one creates a life and state of mind that does not provide chances to do something the regulators, official or unofficial, might censure. Everyone one meets and everything one does is vetted as a potential PR-disaster, as potential distraction, and only then for potential benefits. Top performers of any kind may tell you and the Press how important their families are to them, but don’t listen to what they say, look at what they do. Training first, diet, sleep and learning second, everything else a long third. And their families know it.

Their families accept it because there’s a gold medal in the sock draw. Ordinary people don’t have gold medals, and their families will not and should not accept it.

Enough I say. The idea that ordinary people can benefit from elite training advice benefits authors, publishers and maybe people who sell the gear they recommend. Not ordinary people.

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